Karl Marx statue from China adds to German angst

  • Published
Media caption,

The statue - made by China's top sculptor - has split opinion

With Germany unsure about how to mark 200 years since Karl Marx was born, a giant bronze statue of the philosopher given by China to the town of his birth is adding to the unease.

The small town of Trier near Luxembourg in western Germany eventually decided to accept the 4.5m (15ft) statue created by China's most famous sculptor - but only after years of wrangling over whether taking it would appear to condone rights abuses in China.

Marx co-wrote the Communist Manifesto, which said that all of human history had been based on class struggle. China's capitalist government presents his work as central to its way of governing.

But Marx also remains a controversial figure among Germans, many of whom lived under the Soviet Union's communist government his work inspired.

The statue was unveiled at about midday local time (11:00 GMT) on Saturday. The commemorations have attracted rival groups of protesters and local officials have appealed for calm.

Image source, Reuters
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People protesting against Chinese policies gathered in Trier

"If you want to criticise Marx, you are welcome to do so, but not with violence or destructive rage," Trier spokesman Michael Schmitz told DPA news agency.

The far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was due to hold a silent march to remember the victims of communism, while a counter protest was also expected as well as a vigil in solidarity with China's banned Falun Gong movement, DPA said.

Why is Marx controversial?

His theories were used by his followers to form the basis of communism, a system under which everything was to be owned communally and social classes would disappear.

However, communist-run states such as the Soviet Union and China became notorious for repression and human rights abuses.

Germany's eastern half - the German Democratic Republic - was dominated by the Soviet Union from 1949 until reunification in 1990, by which time it was much poorer than its western counterpart.

Image source, Reuters
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Supporters of communism also rallied in Trier

Malu Dreyer, leader of Germany's Rhineland-Palatinate state, has described the commemorations of Marx's birth as an opportunity to discuss the man and his work, not to "celebrate" him.

Other German politicians have been weighing in on social media.

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"Dear Karl Marx, no matter how brilliant your ideas were, implementing them has never worked. Millions of people's lives and happiness were betrayed," wrote Economy Minister Peter Altmaier from Chancellor Angela Merkel's centre-right Christian Democrats.

"Karl Marx is still highly relevant 200 years after his birth," he wrote. "Today's technological advances make a better society possible. But capitalism prevents this: it destroys people and nature. It's worth reading Marx to see how exactly this happens."

Speaking in Trier on Friday, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Marx today "stands for things which he is not responsible for and which he didn't cause because many of the things he wrote down were redrafted into the opposite".

There has been a revival of interest in Marxist theory in the wake of the 2008 global financial crash.

Why is the statue controversial?

Trier officials said disputes about taking the work had dragged on for two years because some argued that accepting it was not compatible with criticising alleged human rights abuses in China.

On Friday, the German branch of the writers organisation Pen said the statue should not be unveiled until Liu Xia, the widow of China's Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, was released from house arrest.

Ms Liu has been confined to her home since 2010. She has never been charged with any crime.

Meanwhile AfD leader Alexander Gauland said there should be no monument to communism, as it had brought so much suffering to so many people.

Image source, AFP/Getty
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Friday's commemorative events in Trier were disrupted by a protester

Trier's mayor Wolfram Leibe said the statue was an opportunity to re-examine attitudes.

"We have accepted it as a gesture of friendship and this statue should encourage people to deal with Karl Marx," he said.

"Maybe some judgements and prejudices will be revised."

There are other monuments to Marx in Germany, including the house of his birth and a statue in a park in the capital, Berlin. About 4.5m tourists including 50,000 from China visit Trier, Mr Leibe said.

What does China think of Marx?

President Xi Jinping on Friday gave a high-profile speech praising Marx as the greatest thinker of modern times.

He urged China's ruling Communist Party to go back to the roots of Marxism, and said the party would forever remain the "guardians and practitioners" of its theories.

Students and most civil servants in China must complete mandatory courses in Marxism.

Despite this, China's capitalist system is home to hundreds of billionaires and a widening gap between rich and poor.

Image source, Getty Images
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There is already a statue of Marx and his collaborator Engels in a Berlin park

The Marx statue that China has given to Trier was created by famous sculptor Wu Weishan.

"In this era, my work gains much of the world's attention because China gains the world's attention," Mr Wu told Chinese state media.

Who was Karl Marx?

  • The son of a Jewish lawyer in Germany, Marx became a revolutionary communist in Paris and met his lifelong collaborator Friedrich Engels there
  • They co-wrote the Communist Manifesto, which asserted that all human history had been based on class struggle and the workers of the world would ultimately seize power from the ruling elites
  • Marx then moved to London and wrote Das Kapital, arguing that an economic system based on private profit was inherently unstable. Workers were exploited by factory owners and did not own the products of their labour, he said, making them little better than machines
  • In the UK, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has described Marx as a "fascinating figure", saying he had "observed a great deal" and a "great deal" could be learnt from him
  • Marx died in 1883 and was buried at London's Highgate Cemetery